When Wirral-based author and former teacher Jon Mayhew came to Northwich to host a Writing for Children and Young Adults workshop, he brought with him a collection of his notebooks, original manuscripts, ‘visual-maps’ of plots for stories, and a number of rejection letters from publishers. But he also brought THE letter. The golden one. It was written in 2009, from Bloomsbury publishing house, and it was a letter of acceptance for his Victorian Gothic novel, Mortlock. The letter also included a ‘let’s do lunch’ offer, to discuss matters. Ach, imagine that. A book deal. Lunch with an editor. The stuff of dreams.
Scroll on almost two decades later and Jon is an internationally acclaimed, award-winning author, with many more books under his belt. His children’s novels are still published the traditional way, by Bloomsbury, but he has also dipped his toe into the self-publishing waters with his books for adults, which he writes under a nom de plume. The best of both worlds, if you will.
I’ve attended a few workshops and talks by authors in my time, and I’m always in awe of how they actually find time to write. Jon is no exception. He regularly attends schools and libraries and such, to hold workshops. And he’s a Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow at the University of Chester, offering his expertise to students and staff.
But on this particular afternoon in Winnington, Jon was offering his expertise to a group of 12 Northwich (and beyond) writers – all eager to learn more about the writing process, the tricks for creating a good children’s book, tips for unearthing ideas, how to read the market etc.
To get their ideas and creative juices flowing, Jon asked the participants of the workshop to remember what it was like being a child. To remember a time when they were embarrassed, left with a sense of injustice, laughed at something, or what memory evoked a strong emotional response. This helps to put the writer’s mind into the mind of their young protagonist. Jon set the group an exercise: to write a childhood memory in 200 words.
He then talked about how to create great characters, the importance of conflict, aspiration and wish-fulfilment in a story, the structure of it, and how to tap into that big well of ideas that exists out there.
Cull hidden histories, old traditions and sayings, myths, proverbs, and superstitions to use as a basis for a plot. Never be afraid to venture into the dark side, but always be mindful of the age of the readers. And don’t preach to them. If you have something to say, don’t say it, SHOW it. Allude to things, rather than explain.
In the six-hour session, Jon offered the group a wealth of information and tips and tricks of the trade (too much to mention here), all delivered in an authentic, energetic and engaging way.
It certainly gave the Northwich writers a lot of food for thought. And maybe sent them away dreaming of the day they receive their own golden letter.
Shakespeare was a master of the soundbite in an era where the requirement for it didn’t exist. Some of the quotes are excellent and I think they lend themselves well to inspirational posters or would look great on a tee shirt. It isn’t all witty parry and thrust though.
I never got along with Shakespeare, and I never understand other people’s enthusiasm for it either. In a way, I see it like a royal wedding because (a) there’s always room on BBC Breakfast for a feature, (b) there’s always someone trying to sell us an over-expensive decorative plate, and (c) there’s always somebody that feels they must educate me on the finer points, thinking I don’t understand the nuances of it all – implying I’m too thick or too Northern to “get” it. “You have to evaluate it in context with social opinions and politics of the time”
“Iambic pentameter” they say. I shrug. There’s no way I could care any less than I currently do about Iambic Pentameter. Oh, hang on, yes there is a way actually – if you decide you’re going to be the one that simply must explain it to me, that might do the trick.
Yes, I enjoy writing when the mood takes me, but that doesn’t mean I see Shakespeare as the patron saint of writing. It also doesn’t mean I enjoy knowing upfront that they all die in the end, because Quentin Tarantino does it with a much better soundtrack. The nearest I got to enjoying Shakespeare was the recent BBC comedy series ‘Upstart Crow’, (starring David Mitchell as Shakespeare, and well worth a look) because it cocked a snook at old Bill himself – and his output – and much funnier than any of the comedies penned by his nibs because it’s written by Ben Elton, so you won’t need a professor of English literature to point out where all the jokes are.
What I occasionally find incredibly baffling is when directors get it in their head that they need to shift the original play into a different time or setting. I can only assume that they too think old Bill got it completely wrong, but only they know how to fix it. I remember reading a few years ago about Henry V being re-set in a modern battle setting (the Gulf), and I heard recently on Radio 4 that there was a new Othello, in which the title character is played by/as a gay black woman. So what do we get next? Hamlet Meets Ghostbusters? Macbeth vs. Scooby Doo? Although in fairness the Sharks and the Jets did manage to stick a boot up the arse of Romeo and Juliet (they all die in the end). However, West Side Story had to be quite far removed from the actual Shakespearean version in order to become watchable. So much so, that I had to have it pointed out to me before I could acknowledge the relationship (only some of them die in the end in this version).
I remember a time when I thought it might be me, just like it was with red wine. I wanted to like red wine so I occasionally tried a glass now and then until I’d developed a taste for it. It worked so I tried it with olives, and I like them too now. Although it didn’t work with beetroot. And perhaps there’s the rub (deliberate ironic misquote). At school, I used to eat beetroot. I never liked it but I had a kind of tolerance to it so I could eat it without it being a totally hateful experience. The same could be said about my relationship with Shakespeare during the same period. Occasionally I would be presented with a bit of Bill, with not a lot of choice involved. It would be directed at me and I would accept it like I accepted most things at school – it was there to be tolerated. As an adult with free choice, I never touched beetroot after I left school. Why would I? I didn’t enjoy it, and nobody was making me eat it. Years later I thought I might like it by now so I tried it again and I still didn’t like it. Years later I tried it again but the dislike had turned to detestation. So, I asked myself the question; could I develop a taste for rambling Bill from Warwickshire, like I did for olives and red wine? Or would it end up like beetroot? I tried and tried but in the end, it was beetroot all over again so now I’ve finally given up on it. I never had to force myself to enjoy Michael Crichton or the Marx Brothers or beans on toast, so why don’t I just devote my remaining time on Earth to doing things that I like?
So that’s what I do now. The things I want to try again, I will keep having a go at until it becomes clear we have no future together (that’s right, I’m talking about you mister Gym Membership). And the things I used to try because other people think is a good idea for me, I now disregard if I don’t immediately like the idea of it, or see no emotional satisfaction in it (yep, Gym Membership falls into this category too) and I suggest you do the same.
Don’t get me wrong, if you get the opportunity, try some new foods and visit new places. Say hello to strangers and try to smile at ugly babies, but there may come a time when you find yourself noticing that everyone around you is commenting on how fine the King’s new clothes are, and you alone can see that he’s actually naked. Don’t be fooled into thinking he’s had a Gok Wan makeover though, because attending a Shakespeare play is like wearing shoes that are a size too small – they may have looked great, and it all seemed like a good idea when you were in the shop, but you get most pleasure from them when you finally take them off.
Which brings me to the reason for my rant… The forthcoming VRWG Summer cultural picnic is almost upon us, and the choices available to us fall into the obvious categories; Shakespeare or not Shakespeare? That is the question. Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of iambic pentameter? Or to take arms against a sea of troubles and opt for Oscar Wilde instead?
I can understand that you may be persuaded to try it one more time, because when it finally ends, at least you can say to people “Well I tried it, so you can stop trying to ram it down my throat now.” And if they persist, you can return the favour and invite them to something equally terrible and abhorrent “You really should come to one of my Nazi re-enactment tea and orgy afternoon soirees some time.” and when they decline the opportunity you can point out to them that they just don’t get the subtle nuances of it all, and explain that they need to understand the politics of the time and put it in context… And of course, nobody needs to die in the end. Unless that’s what you want? In that case, you need to see a Tarantino movie instead.
When I was a kid I had one of those faces that people liked, and I would often find myself being pinned into a corner while somebody spilled their life story to me, or told me their problems. Teachers felt like they needed to explain things to me, and friend’s mums wanted their kids to play with me. In the 70’s, I worked on the markets in Liverpool and I would often be press-ganged by a queue of middle aged ladies every weekend, and they would regale me with the minutiae of their lives while the other marketeers stood around in groups laughing at me. Say what you will, but I sold more toilet rolls and scouring pads than anybody else back then.
So, people liked me. In secondary school, though, this – just like anything else that marked you out as different – became a stick to beat me with, as the older, tougher kids saw this as a good enough reason to give me a hard time. Eventually I learned to adapt and, over the years, my resting face has settled on an unreadable neutral expression (using the same logic as my friend Michelle, who has what she describes as a “resting bitch face”). I find it easy to turn my neutral glare into a scowl or menacing stare when I need to, so I sometimes pick one to make me appear disagreeable or aggressive.
When I occasionally use public transport – which I tend to avoid whenever possible – I find myself falling into some of the behaviour patterns that I follow when I’m in my car. In my car, I’m most often travelling alone because I prefer it that way, so on a bus or a train I do my best to discourage people from sitting next to me. I don’t go so far as to put my belongings onto a vacant seat or piss myself, but I do try and make myself look like the kind of person you don’t want to sit next to. So once again I pick my aggressive or disagreeable facial configuration and style it out. It all falls to pieces of course as soon as the seats fill up around me and an old lady needs somewhere to sit, but at least I made it to Edge Hill (a reference for Scousers of a certain age).
Part of the reason for all this passive aggression is due to an unopposable rule of cosmic physics, which can best be represented by the scientific argument;
if there is a double-decker bus with 30 double bench seats, with a total combined capacity to carry 60 passengers in comfort, but none of the seats are fully occupied; when the local lunatic gets on the bus at the next stop, why does he always sit next to me?
Which brings us to the white jump board at the edge of the sandpit of this rather long run up to the actual point …Blogging.
Why do people bother? I do it for Vale Royal Writing Group because we have a blogging policy and somebody has to do it (usually me but there are other regular contributors). But if it doesn’t have an element of a formal requirement, why would a person feel the need to record details of the crap we don’t care about? I tried to do a bit of research to try and justify my rant but there was just too much of it (blogging not ranting, but sometimes these are the same thing).
I found one blog that existed purely to provide bloggers with subjects to blog about – and even that isn’t an anomaly because once I knew the concept existed I discovered there were loads of similar blogs, and many blogs that provide the tools for bloggers to manage their blogs. So, stretching the existing acceptable levels of endless loops of people disappearing up their own intimate cavities, I think perhaps I’ve identified a gap in the blogging market, for a blogger to write blogs about people who tell people how to write blogs.
Amongst all the pages and pages of blogs on fashion, make up, hair, recipes, babies, dogs, cats, books, restaurants, art, cinema, writing, music etc. ad infinitum, I also discovered that “blogger” is now an acceptable job title. I found myself reacting to that information in the same way I did when I found out that (A) a man in his 30s can earn a living riding a BMX, (B) having your own YouTube channel is aspirational, and (C) DJs are thought of in the same reverence as gifted musicians, like Charlie Parker, Django Reinhardt and Ella Fitzgerald. The world has always been a bit weird but I think I’ve discovered where I want to draw the line.
In my opinion, reading a blog (including especially this one) is like seeking out the lunatic that you used to dread sitting next to you on the bus, and asking him to tell you all about himself, and what the voices in his head are telling him to do. So, in a way, of all the people on this bus that we’re on, dear reader, you chose to sit next to me. So, settle yourself in and let me tell you all about myself …
Regardless of what you might be thinking, this isn’t a blog. Yes, I know it looks like one, and it’s certainly in the right place, but that doesn’t make it a blog. A blog has to be ABOUT something surely? (sorry, I didn’t mean to shout but sometimes emphasis LOOKS like shouting) And this is about … well, nothing. Although that hasn’t stopped me before.
In the forthcoming, eagerly awaited, excellently crafted and agonisingly beautiful Anthology 3 (son of Anthology 2, the sequel), there is a section dedicated to writing exercises, and in it the writer/collator refers to an exercise we did way-back-when that required us to write for a specific amount of time, with the aim of keeping the output as unexciting and boring as possible. Some of us were really good at it and managed to come up with terrifically dull descriptions of buying socks and listening to paint dry etc. I usually struggle to make my writing appear exciting so this was right up my avenue, and I recall describing in great (not the good kind of great) detail the pen and paper of a fellow writer. I never actually got to write anything of substance, as part of the process was to try and avoid the actual intention by putting it off with long and unnecessarily dull descriptions until time ran out.
So in the absence of volunteers for a March blog I decided to take the opportunity to (a) shamelessly promote the new VRWG anthology, Beneath the Blue Bridge (available soon in multiple formats and with a spiffing cover that other anthologies will aspire to) and (b) give you an opportunity to try this exercise in futility. Mine is set out below. If you would like to try, then set yourself 10 minutes and see if you can describe something incredibly dull. And remember, avoid getting to the point, and resist the temptation to jazz it up and make it exciting.
See you all Monday 9th for the April meeting … and Monday 30th April for the May meeting (strange but true!)
The Amateur’s Guide to Writing the Exercise Provided by Tom Ireland at the Vale Royal Writing Group October Meeting on this day of Our Lord, the Third of October Two Thousand and Sixteen
(subtitled: How to Provide a Lingering Death to a Poorly Executed Stream of Consciousness Piece, to Ensure You Don’t Get to the End Until Your MOT Has Run Out, and the Tin of Aldi Baked Beans Has Eventually Exceeded its Sell-by Date)
Luckily I can begin with a pen. There was an almost catastrophic moment when Liz was unable to begin her take on the process because she was Bic-less. Sharpie-light. Missing a Mont Blanc. Fortunately, she moved her note pad forward a modest amount – no more than two point five centimetres in an estimated Southerly direction – and a pen was revealed.
From this distance (about one metre to her immediate left) it appeared to be an A4 feint ruled pad with a spiral binder on the left side, as is common in Western languages. Of course, when writing on the traditional reverse side, the spiral binder will subsequently – albeit temporarily – be on the right side of the feint ruled sheet of A4, thus providing a degree of flexibility that allows the user to utilise their resources to maximum capacity.
The pen appeared to be either crystal or opaque with a removable cap, which had been removed, and then snugly fitted onto the ball-less end of the barrel. The barrel itself was infused with a dashing red stripe, like that worn on the uniformed leg of the soldiers of old – or like stationery toothpaste.
And at this point the 10 minutes were up so over to you …
Let me begin this blog by quoting someone else:
“I have now discovered that making marks in books to show assent, dissent or just to highlight important passages was the norm rather than the exception way back in medieval and Renaissance times. In fact, educators of the time recommended that the best way to learn from a book wasn’t just to read it like we do now, but to physically mark passages, perhaps to stitch pieces of thread into the page to mark the important bits, or even to tear pages from the book itself: in other words, to use it as required and not just to read it, passively. We have evolved from a culture in which readers of the past literally took hold of texts for specific purposes, to one in which texts generally take hold of readers who may not be looking for anything beyond a good read.”
This fascinating peek into the history of book reading got me thinking about our modern relationship with books and how we read them.
First, let me hold up my hand and admit to writing copious notes (in pencil) in all my English Lit textbooks. And let me attest to the value of this for the learning process. But I have equally to admit that it’s never occurred to me to write comments in the margins of non-academic novels – although it may have alleviated the frustration that came from reading some of them: “If you can’t be bothered to edit it, why should I bother to read it!!” Or “You said four chapters ago that Stella had long, dark flowing locks; now she’s a blonde. Don’t you know your own characters, for f**k’s sake?” Or even, “I seriously think you ought to seek help!”
Nowadays, I suspect this ‘marking’ practice would be frowned upon as bad form and tantamount to defacing or vandalising books. Is this modern outlook just good manners or have we become far too precious in our relationship with books?
The author of the opening quotation also said that reading the marginalia “was like being in a book club of two but without the wine”. And I understand what he was getting at. Writing comments in a book creates a kind of ‘conversation’ – not only with the book’s author but also with future readers of the book who will discover your notes. I’ve come across some textbook marginalia that have presented me with a completely new perspective on a subject or specific passage. It changes the reading experience from being a solitary one to one where you enter the mindset of another reader and see another reader’s viewpoint. Surely seeing another person’s point of view can only ever be a good thing – widening our understanding and broadening our outlook.
So, what kind of reader are you? Do you dog-ear your pages rather than use a bookmark? Do you open out the pages and flatten the spine? Or do you prefer to keep your books as pristine as the day you bought them? I’m in the former camp and do like getting to grips with a book and am not afraid to batter it a bit. This may horrify some book-lovers of course – and each to their own bibliophile bent. But the one thing we must surely all agree on is that, for all their growing popularity, we can’t interact in that kind of physical way with e-books. And I think that’s why, for me, a Kindle will never replace the sheer joy of a paper book – even down to the lovely papery smell of it. Electronic may have its uses, but it probably would have horrified those medieval and Renaissance readers who made marks, stitched in pieces of thread, and tore out pages to carry away with them. And they’d be even more horrified by the librarian who added a caustic condemnation to the inside front cover of a returned book: “Systematically vandalised throughout by a reader, June 2010.”
Liz Sandbach, February 2018
The Blue Cap Coup
Whilst the police continue to investigate the events of the 8th January 2018 at the Blue Cap Hostelry in Sandiway, I feel it behoves me to offer this version of the truth.
This was to be a special meeting of the august and revered Vale Royal Writers’ Group. Some ‘person’ had suggested that instead of taking up part of the meeting with our usual writing exercise, we should instead perform said exercise in a solitary fashion as ‘homework’ to be done in advance of the meeting.
There was therefore a degree of tension in the room even before the events as related below began to unfold. People looked from face to face, smiling nervously, trying to ascertain who had been swotty enough to produce something in advance.
The exercise itself was a cracker. Choose a character and then write a short piece featuring them – but with all their normal attributes reversed. For example, Ian Rankin’s Rebus would be a devout teetotaller who always did everything strictly by the book.
The meeting started on time as normal, with our beloved Captain Bob welcoming us all before moving on to a discussion of the exercise. And that is when two things happened that suddenly changed the whole course of the evening.
The first thing was that Bob decided that all us bad people should be given ten minutes at the start of the meeting to have a go at the exercise. (Take that, Swots!)
The second thing was that the question was posed as to whether the character in the exercise had to be fictional or not. The decision was that the character did not have to be fictional.
And that is when everything changed, and suddenly there was a nauseating sensation of tumbling from a great height as the faces around the table and the room itself seemed to wink in and out of existence until suddenly it was ten minutes earlier and…
Feet were shifting under the table. Joyce looked meaningfully at Tom who shrugged and made a face, as he was often wont to do. She turned to Bob and coughed, tapping her watch.
Bob looked up from his notebook and smiled. “Oh! Have you got a smartwatch too, Joyce? I must say I do find mine very useful… once I’ve managed to tap it to wake it up!”
Joyce sighed and shook her head sadly. “It’s twenty-to-eight, Bob. Don’t you think it’s time we…”
Bob clasped his hand to his brow. “Oh, the meeting! I’m so sorry, everyone! I was just composing one of my love poems for the anthology.”
Bill leered. “Is that dirty dominatrix woman in it?” he asked.
“Now just stop there, Bill,” Bob said primly. “I will have you know that I have left that embarrassing period of my life behind me. I’m more into fluffy little lambs and hosts of daffodils and murmurations of starlings nowadays.”
Joyce banged her bottle of Budweiser on the table. “We really ought to start the meeting NOW, Bob!”
Bob took a sip of his sparkling mineral water and daintily wiped his lips with a monogrammed silk handkerchief. “I don’t know, Joyce,” he mused. He looked enquiringly around the assembled writers. “Does anyone want to have a meeting?”
“Oh, for goodness sake!” thundered Joyce. “What’s happened to you, man?”
“I have become a better person,” he said.
“Bollocks!” said Joyce, as she wrestled Bob to the floor and applied a strangulation lock worthy of Mick McManus.
“But I wanted to read my poem!” he cried with his last gasp.
So there you have it.
I have heard that Joyce has claimed that she was not even at the meeting, and that Tom supports her in this. But then they would say that, wouldn’t they?
With the exception of myself, this is clearly a deeply disturbed group of people.
If you think you would fit in, we meet on the first Monday of each month in the Blue Cap in Sandiway, except when it falls on a Bank Holiday when we slide forward a week.
Or back, depending on how we feel.